Malian political parties say leaders arrested amid crackdown

BAMAKO, Mali (Reuters) -An alliance of political parties and civil society groups in junta-led Mali said several of their leaders were arrested on Thursday evening during a private meeting at a house of a former minister. The alliance in a statement demanded their prompt release.

The West African country, which has been under military rule since a coup in 2020, in April issued a decree that restricted political life in the name of maintaining public order.

The political parties and civil society groups did not say how many people were detained, but Boubacar Toure, a representative of one of the parties, told Reuters on Friday that 11 people had been arrested at the private meeting. Most of them were political leaders, he said.

In a statement, the political parties and groups accused the authorities of pursuing "a path to dictatorship ... with the sole aim of staying in power and silencing all democratic and republican voices."

Mali's security ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ruling junta has suspended all activities by political parties and "associations of a political nature" after the group of political parties and civil society organisations jointly criticised the authorities on March 31 for failing to schedule elections within the promised time frame.

In response to the junta's order, the political parties turned to the Malian Supreme Court but it is not clear when the top court will consider the appeal.

The location of Thursday's gathering had been shared in a WhatsApp group for activists and political party members, the president of an association told Reuters. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his safety.

"The objective of these arbitrary arrests ... is to create fear among citizens, so that no activist, no member of an association, will raise a finger or come out to denounce what is being done," he said.

Those arrested had gathered during the Eid religious festival to exchange best wishes and also to discuss politics, said the secretary-general of a political party who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

"With the suspension of political parties, the banning of political party activities, it is difficult for people to come together and talk, so every opportunity that allows people to come together is an opportunity to address essential questions," he said.

He said the arrests would damage confidence in the ruling junta but would not prevent Malians from discussing politics.

"People continue to call each other on the phone, they continue to express their opinions," he said. "One way or another, we will find the means to meet again, whether in the fields, whether in the orchards, whether around the squares."

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Portia Crowe in Dakar; Writing by Anait Miridzhanian; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Matthew Lewis)